Guide to Visiting Paris

It’s hard not to love Paris.  The city has long been a muse for artists and writers, inspired revolutionaries and visionaries and provided a colorful setting for countless books, music and movies.  Year after year, Paris remains one of the most visited cities in the WORLD, and for good reason.  Its historic charm is undeniable (the streets, the river and those gorgeous rooftops!) yet there’s a refreshing sense of modernity that pulses through the city, along with some of the best art, architecture and food you’ll find anywhere.  There’s so much to take in that even after multiple trips I still felt like I haven’t experienced all Paris has to offer.  It remains one of my favorite cities and I’m happy to share these tips, recommendations and other insights from my collective visits in this snapshot guide.  Bon voyage!

Getting There and Around
Most visitors will arrive in Paris by plane or train and have several different options to reach the city center.  From Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) the RER B train is one of the fastest ways to get to central Paris (travel time is approximately 40 minutes) with stops at major stations including Gare du Nord, Châtelet-Les Halles and Saint Michel-Notre Dame, where you can connect with the metro, bus or walk to your final destination depending on where you’re staying.  Note that the RER B requires a special ticket to travel from the airport (zone 5) to the city center (zone 1), which you can purchase from any of the automated vending machines in the station.  There are also several bus and shuttle options from the airport, as well as taxi or Uber for those who want to avoid public transportation with luggage and don’t mind paying a little more.  If you’re traveling by train, there are 6 train stations throughout Paris that each serve different directions and routes throughout France and Europe.  For example, Gare de Nord caters to northern destinations including the Eurostar to/from London.

RER B departures from Charles de Gaulle to Paris

Pairs is neatly organized into 20 districts called arrondissements that spiral clockwise around the city with the Seine River running through the middle.  Sights are sometimes referred to as being on the Rive Droite (Right Bank north of the river) or Rive Gauche (Left Bank south of the river), which may be helpful to know when organizing your time.  In terms of public transportation, Paris is well-connected via metro, bus, tram and RER trains, all of which use the same t+ ticket for travel within zone 1.  Tickets are valid for 90 minutes (including transfers), and some stations require you to insert your ticket into the turnstile again to exit so be sure to hold onto them.  While unlimited travel passes are available, the best option for moderate use is to purchase a book of 10 single ride tickets (called a carnet), which can be shared among everyone in your party and used as needed.  Also, the Next Stop Paris app makes navigating public transportation super easy for visitors with a route finder, maps, ticket details and tons of other helpful information.  Paris also has a great bike share program called Vélib’ if you’re feeling extra ambitious.  Part of the charm of Paris is walking its streets, so one more general tip about getting around is to cluster your sightseeing into specific areas each day so you can take in the city’s beauty on foot.

Paris metro stations

What to See and Do
You can spend a lifetime in Paris and never run out of things to see and do.  First off there are the “big three” museums the Musée du Louvre for classical art housed in a former palace, the Musée d’Orsay for impressionist era works in an old train station-turned-museum and the Centre Pompidou for modern art in an eye-catching inside out building.  There are also TONS of smaller museums ranging from the Musée Rodin (the man behind The Thinker) to the Musée de l’Orangerie (if you’re mad for Monet), Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (history of Paris through its architecture), the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (for all things art and design), Musée de l’Armée (military museum plus Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides) and too many more to list.

Paris’ “big three” museums -Musée du Louvre (top), Musée d’Orsay and Centre Pompidou (bottom)

Beyond museums, there are countless iconic sights throughout Paris including Notre Dame (climb the cathedral’s bell tower for beautiful city views and an up-close look at its gargoyles) and the nearby Gothic jewel box of a church Sainte-Chapelle, the Arch de Triomphe (more great views of the city’s broad boulevards and organized street plan), the Sacré-Cœur basilica crowning the top of Montmartre and the Palais Garnier opera house (definitely book a guided tour even if you aren’t interested in seeing a show).  If you’re on a budge there are also a ton of free things to see and do throughout Paris – exploring beautiful parks and squares like the Tuileries near the Louvre, Jardin du Luxembourg (the perfect spot for a Parisian picnic…more on that later), Place des Vosges or Palais-Royal, visiting the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery or strolling along the bridges and banks of the Seine River.

Notre Dame Cathedral (top), Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre (bottom left) and inside the Palais Garnier opera house (bottom right)

Also, for first time visitors and/or if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing, I highly recommend getting the Museum Pass.  The pass comes in 2, 4 and 6-day options and provides free admission and the ability to skip the line at more than 50 museums and monuments throughout the Paris area.  For sights not covered by the pass (i.e. the Eiffel Tower), you should definitely look into purchasing your tickets in advance to avoid waiting in long lines.

Eiffel Tower at night

If you want to venture outside of Paris, there are several great daytrip destinations to consider.  One of the most popular is the Palace of Versailles (lavish residence and gardens of Louis XIV), which is an easy 45 minute ride on the RER C train.  You can also visit Claude Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny in under an hour, or make the full-day trek to visit the dream-like abbey of Mont-Saint Michel in Normandy.

Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny (left) and the abbey of Mont-Saint Michel in Normandy (right)

In terms of shopping in Paris you’ll find everything from big department stores (aka les grand magasins Le Bon Marché, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette) to every luxury brand under the sun as you walk down the Champs-Élysées and tons of smaller boutiques and specialty shops throughout the city.  And while there’s no shortage of chintzy souvenir stores in Paris, a unique alternative are the green metal bouquiniste stalls along the banks of the Seine.  Markets are also quintessentially Parisian and each neighborhood has its own where on certain days of the week you’ll find amazing fresh produce and other locally produced food items, perfect for just browsing or for assembling your very own picnic.

Galeries Lafayette decorated at Christmas

By no means is this an exhaustive list of all Paris has to offer.  While it may be tempting to try to pack in as much as possible, my biggest piece of advice is to go with the intention of someday returning so you can focus and enjoy your time.

Where to Eat and Drink
Paris is one of the best places for food with options ranging from the humblest sidewalk cafes to Michelin star restaurants and everything in between.  And the good thing is you don’t have to eat fancy to eat well in Paris.  For example, my favorite way to start the day is at a café with a coffee and a pastry – a café au lait (coffee with hot milk) and pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissant) to be exact, along with some fruit from the market to complete the meal.  For lunch, I typically eat something small on the go and there is tons of street food throughout Paris ranging from baguette sandwiches and crêpes to ethnic options like dim sum, kebabs and falafel (I highly recommend L’As du Fallafel on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais).

Parisian café and street food

French cuisine can be intimidating, but you can’t go wrong with classic dishes like boeuf bourguin, coq au vin, salade niçoise (I also love a salade de chèvre chaud topped with warm goat cheese) or soupe à l’oignon at a traditional brasserie.  The traditional steak frite is also a must in Paris, and one of the more exciting places to indulge in this bistro favorite is Le Relais de l’Entrecôte.  The city is also rich with every type of international cuisine you can think of, and I always like seek out pizza at least once on a trip (my top pick thus far is Ober Mamma also in the Marais).  Bottom line, it helps to do a little research before you go so you have a few restaurants in your back pocket (no one makes a good decision when they’re hangry).  You can read more about a handful of place I’ve eat in Paris here and here.

Steak frite at  Le Relais de l’Entrecôte

For at least one meal I highly suggest a picnic in the park.  This is your opportunity to visit a local market and specialty stores like a boulagerie and formangerie (the “-erie stores” as I like to call them) to buy bread, cheese, meat, fruit and of course, wine.  The Jardin du Luxembourg is one of my favorite spots to picnic, but there are many places where you can enjoy your meal ranging from the Champ de Mars across from the Eiffel Tower to Place des Vosges, Jardin des Plantes and the banks alongside the Seine.  Note that most public parks have closing times around sunset so be sure to plan accordingly.

Jardin du Luxembourg (left) and picnic essentials (right)

And I can’t talk about food in Paris without mentioning all of the amazing sweets you’ll encounter.  This topic alone is worthy of an entire post with all of the artfully-created pastries and pastel-hued macarons that adorn pâtisserie windows throughout the city.  In warmer weather, you’ll be happy to know that there is no shortage of ice cream shops serving glace and during the winter it’s a treat to warm up with a chocolat chaud.

French macarons

Where to Stay
Location is everything in Paris, and where you stay is one of the most important things to consider.  Each arrondissement has its own personality and my absolute favorite place to call home is the Hotel Agora Saint Germain in the 5th arrondissement.  This Left Bank boutique hotel oozes with charm and its atmospheric neighborhood in the Latin Quarter has a local yet lively feel with tons of specialty shops, cafés, restaurants and markets nearby.  It’s also within walking distance of sights including Notre Dame, the Panthéon and Jardin du Luxembourg, as well as the bustling Boulevard Saint-Germain with more shopping and restaurants and several metro stations.

Hotel Agora Saint Germain

The rooms at the Agora Saint Germain are on the small-ish side, which is a minor tradeoff given its near-perfect location.  I especially love how the windows in the rooms open up to reveal the surrounding streets and rooftops (c’est la vie).  I’ve stayed here multiple times and have always found the staff to be extremely friendly and accommodating with directions, restaurant reservations, etc.  Breakfast is available for an additional cost and includes a hearty assortment of eggs, meats, cheeses, cereals, breads and pastries with made-to-order coffee, juice and milk (it’s a good value if already included in your rate).

For something on the Right Bank, I’ve also stayed at The Hoxton in the 2nd arrondissement within the first week of its grand opening in Paris.  My first introduction to The Hox (as it’s affectionately called) was in Amsterdam the previous year, and its French counterpart boasts the same hip vibe with acute attention to location and history in its design and décor.  Throughout you’ll find plush velvet chairs, modern light fixtures and not one but two restored spiral staircases, along with a brassier-style restaurant, old-fashioned speakeasy bar and a gorgeous lobby that spills out onto two adjacent courtyards, which are the perfect place to relax with a coffee or cocktail.

The Hoxton

We chose a “Roomy” room that gave us more space than we’re used to at boutique hotels in Europe, which was both comfortable and modern (copper fixtures and white subway tiles in the spacious bathroom) with touches of Parisian chic (a large light-filled window and beautiful parquet floors).  There’s an in-room fridge with fresh milk and bottled water that can also be stocked with additional items from The Hoxton’s “no rip off mini bar” behind the front desk.  You’re also given a breakfast bag to hang on your door before you go to bed, which is filled with a banana, yogurt and orange juice the next morning.  The only drawback was that the neighborhood surrounding The Hoxton felt busy, gritty and lacked some of the charm that I love about the Latin Quarter.  And even though it’s relatively central, getting around seemed to require a little more effort (i.e. multiple train changes on the metro, especially to reach the airport and about a 20 minute walk to reach major sites like the Louvre and Palais Garnier).

Also Good to Know
Tourists sometimes regard Parisians as “rude”, but what they may not realize is that the French culture has a certain amount of formality that many may not be familiar with.  Standards of what’s considered appropriate behavior are slightly different and language has a lot to do with that.  For example greetings are super important, like saying bonjour (hello) when you enter a store (bonus if you add monsieur/madame for sir/madam) and au revior (goodbye) when you leave.  Another obvious one is s’il vous plaît (please) and merci (thank you).  Simple pleasantries like this not only are respectful but are practically the price of entry in Paris, otherwise you run the risk of being ignored.  Not only is this polite, it will help you have a better experience.  I also like to brush up on other French basis like numbers (which is especially helpful when shopping) and simple phrases that I know will come in handy in restaurants and with transportation.  Bottom line, learning a little language goes a long way in Paris.

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